Homicide Trends: What You Need to Know

October 5, 2021

Each fall, the Federal Bureau of Investigation aggregates and distributes annual crime data from law enforcement agencies across the country. Many agencies now post their own weekly and monthly data online, permitting researchers, including those at the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), to analyze and report trends in closer to real time.

On September 27, the FBI released its year-end report for 2020. The government’s figures largely mirrored what CCJ and Arnold Ventures reported in January based on a sample of 34 cities. Both reports, for instance, indicated that in 2020 homicide increased by nearly 30% over the year before.

This brief summarizes key takeaways based on the newly issued FBI report as well as historical and more recent data. All data used in this report are retrieved from the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer website, unless otherwise noted.

  1. Violent crime, particularly homicide, increased in 2020. The increase has slowed in 2021 and levels remain below historical highs. The violent crime rate rose by 4.6 percent, and the homicide rate rose by 28.9%, an historic one-year increase.1 Property crime rates declined by 8.1%. According to data collected by CCJ, homicides in a cross-section of cities continued to rise through the first half of 2021 but at a slower rate of 16%. The rate of increase slowed between the first (up 23%) and second (up 11%) quarters of the year. Despite 2020 increases for some crimes, rates for all offenses remain below the peaks of the early 1990s. The 2020 homicide rate is 33% lower than its most recent peak in 1991, while the property crime rate is 61% lower than its peak that year. The violent crime rate is 47% lower than it was at its most recent peak in 1991, but is at roughly the same level as the last increase in 2016.
Violent Crime Rate, 1979 – 2020
Homicide Rate, 1979 – 2020
Property Crime Rate, 1979 – 2020
  1. A greater share of homicides involved firearms in 2020. The percentage of homicides involving firearms has been increasing steadily over time, reaching a peak of 77% in 2020 compared to 73% in 2019.
Homicides Involving a Firearm, 2010 – 2020

3. The age of homicide victims and offenders remains relatively stable, although it declined slightly in 2020. Media reports have highlighted tragically young victims of violence over the past year, but the age of homicide victims and perpetrators remained largely the same. Victims 19 and younger comprised 17% of homicide victims in 2010; they were 15% of victims in 2020. Similarly, the share of people arrested for homicide who were 19 and younger decreased from 20% to 18% from 2010 to 2020. In contrast, the percentage of offenders and victims aged 30 to 39 has been steadily increasing over the past decade.2

Age of Offenders, 2010 – 2020
Age of Homicide Victims, 2010 – 2020
  1. The percentage of Hispanic victims and offenders has decreased. The racial and ethnic composition of homicide victims and offenders has changed since 2010. The percentage of Black victims has increased by 6%, while the percentage of White and Hispanic victims has decreased, by 6% and 9% respectively. The percentage of White and Black offenders remained consistent over the 10-year period. The proportion of offenders who are Hispanic fell from 20% in 2010 to 9% in 2020.3
Race and Ethnicity of Homicide Victims, 2010 – 2020
Race and Ethnicity of Offenders, 2010 – 2020
  1. The homicide clearance rate declined significantly in 2020, continuing a downward trend that began in the 1970s. The homicide clearance rate was 82% in 1976.4 In 2019, the rate was 55% and by 2020 it had fallen still further, to 50%. This 5% decrease is the largest decrease in clearance rates since 1989.5
Homicide Clearance Rate, 2010 – 2020
  1. The circumstances of homicides have grown increasingly unclear. While the absolute number of homicides is known with confidence, the relationships between victims and offenders and the motives behind the killings have become less clear over time. When fewer cases are solved, authorities know less about them. In 2020, 52% of homicide relationships were classified as “unknown,” up from 44% in 2010. The share of unknown homicide circumstances rose from 46% to 56% over the same period. Some media reports, and some elected officials and candidates for elected office, have suggested that homicides have become more random and brazen. The gaps in the national data prevent an overall statistical assessment of those characterizations.
Victim-Offender Relationship, 2010 – 2020
Circumstances of Homicide, 2010 – 2020

Note: This brief utilizes the definitions and labels of the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program dataset. The Council is committed to using person-first language in its reports, briefs, and data analyses and has done so when possible within the confines of this dataset.  

  1. The number of homicides increased by 29.4% in 2020 compared to 2019.
  2. The age of the offender could not be determined by police in approximately 32% of homicide cases between 2010 and 2020.
  3. Race and ethnicity measures should be interpreted with caution. Because not all agencies report detailed offense information every year, fluctuations can be the result of reporting and not actual changes. Asian, American Indian or native Alaskan, and native Hawaiian are not reported due to the concern of reporting inconsistency. The race of the offender could not be determined by police in approximately 29% of cases between 2010 to 2020.
  4. This rate was generated by analyzing a sample of 154 large cities. See: Mancik, A. M., & Parker, K. F. (2019). Homicide clearances during pre-and post-US crime drop eras: The role of structural predictors and demographic shifts, 1976–2015. Journal of crime and justice42(3), 237-256.
  5. Data obtained and calculated from: https://www.openicpsr.org/openicpsr/project/100707/version/V17/view. Clearance rates were calculated by dividing the total number of cleared murders by the total number of murders. This figure does not adjust for murder clearances that may have occurred during a prior year.